One of the most interesting things about political writing is the way in which people fall into grooves that go unidentified. Most grooves are easy to see: this person is Right-wing, that one is Left-wing; this person is a party loyalist, that one is not. But what is almost never commented upon is the way in which people fall into habits of thought — or habits of excuse for thought — which should mark them out in their own way.
Of all the grooves most crying out for identification, the foremost is what I have come to think of as “parallel-ism” or “equidistance-ism”. This is the tendency to construct a political position — or more commonly to justify an existing political position — by claiming that you stand precisely between two points.
Practitioners of equidistance-ism usually go on to declare that both the poles they have identified are manned by extremists or madmen, and that the author is therefore holding their own, all but alone, in the sane middle ground. Having reoriented the political galaxy in order to place themselves slap-bang in that sensible centre they ordinarily finish by pronouncing a curse on all extremist houses — before presumably beginning to dream about who will play themself in the movie version.
There are plenty of objections that can be made to this way of doing things. Among the most obvious is that it almost always relies on a diminution of one side’s iniquity and an exaggeration of another’s. As such the “I am standing between two equally obnoxious extremes” position which columnist after columnist has taken over the years (and which has become ubiquitous in the current UK election) commits three errors.
The first is that it at least partially defames one party. The second is that it lets another party slightly off the hook. The third error is that it attempts to repackage an act of astounding political cowardice as some kind of admirable moral stance. Consider one move that is being attempted at the current election. And I say this — as though it should need saying — as someone who has voted for all the major parties at some point.
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell may be leading the Labour Party now, and may have come to many people’s attention only in recent years, but those of us who have followed them for many years are aware of who and what they are.
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Both have shown throughout their careers a willingness to support any movement, however violent, so long as it appears “anti-imperialist”, which to them means anti-British in particular, but can be spread out to encompass America (next in line), Israel (occasionally at the top of their list, depending on events in the Middle East) and any other Western democracy, especially if it a member of NATO.
The support that both men gave for years to the IRA, and the backing that Jeremy Corbyn has given throughout his career to every variety of anti-Semite, Holocaust denier and anti-Jewish bigot is so clear that it requires a remarkable degree of ideological devotion of its own to pretend it away. Ordinarily, such figures being at the helm of a political party — let alone a party that used to count ‘anti-racism’ as a central principle — would cause a mass exodus.
Perhaps it will lead to an exodus at the polls. But among those whose job it is to opine in public, there is not so much opportunity for quietly ticking a box and keeping your judgement to yourself. The opinion-writing class have to justify why they are willing to still support the Labour party or otherwise — and more commonly — explain why they cannot vote for the only party capable of defeating Labour in next week’s election. It is these people who are paid to express their opinion who at this point find a way out in the weaselly practise of “parallel-ism”. Here is an example of how it runs:
“Sure Jeremy Corbyn appears to have allowed anti-Semitism to run rife through the Labour party. Sure he seems to have spent his career emboldening and supporting anti-Semites wherever he can find them. But then the Tories have their own problems — look at the Islamophobia of some members of the party.”
There is already plenty to dispute in such claims, not least the idea that “Islamophobia” is the same thing as anti-Semitism. But let us park that old dispute for a moment and focus on the bigger trick that is being played here. And the deeper dishonesty that it exposes.
To the extent that any anti-Muslim prejudice has been found in the Conservative Party it is limited to a handful of councillors sharing posts on social media which are to some degree or other deemed to be “Islamophobic”. Is this equivalent to what Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have done to the Labour Party in recent years?
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Taking this idea at face value, what would the Conservative Party have to be guilty of in order to be the subject of this “one the one hand/on the other”–ism?
Boris Johnson would have had to have laid flowers at the grave of Baruch Goldstein (who massacred 29 Palestinian Muslims in 1994), plausibly the equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn laying a wreath at the grave of the Munich Olympics murderers. Yet, to date, no photograph has been found showing the Conservative leader making a pilgrimage to the outskirts of Hebron in order to perform this act of homage.
In 2017, Darren Osborne drove a truck into a crowd of worshippers leaving prayers at a mosque in Finsbury Park. And yet, to date, Boris Johnson has not campaigned that Osborne should not have been charged, found guilty or sentenced for this appalling crime. So far as I am aware, no elected member of the Conservative Party has pretended that Osborne is some poor, misguided innocent.
And yet this is the sort of act that would have to be found in the ranks of the Conservative Party in order to find an equivalence to Jeremy Corbyn’s support for Samar Alami and Jawad Botmeh — two men who were convicted for a car-bomb attack on a London Jewish charity’s headquarters in 1994. While Corbyn acted as a long-time defender and indeed character referee for the anti-Jewish bombers, no senior Conservative appears to have made Darren Osborne into some kind of sick campaigning cause.
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I could go on and on. While the Shadow Chancellor has spent years defending the “bravery” of the IRA when they tortured and murdered hundreds of innocent people, there is no evidence that the present Chancellor, Sajid Javid, ever praised or gave supportive speeches for the Red Hand Defenders or Ulster Volunteer Force. Is such evidence likely to emerge? I suspect not.
So why this strange emphasis from members of the commentariat who like to pretend that they are independent-minded, that they cannot vote for either main party because they are in some way equally bad? Perhaps some of them think it. Perhaps some genuinely cannot tell any differences between the two parties.
But a far more likely explanation is that many of these ‘independent-minded’ columnists are simply far more tribal than they would like the rest of us to think. When the Labour Party is led by a man who has spent his life mainstreaming the vilest and most deadly prejudice of all, the lifelong members of the Labour tribe who recognise that fact still feel too much a part of that tribe to do the one thing that is more appalling than anything to them — which is to switch sides and vote Conservative.
That is the one thing they can never do. And so they come up with ways to reorient the political landscape; to present themselves as being the only people remaining stable while everyone else is disoriented. Whereas they — in their moment of pretended stability — may be the most lost and morally disoriented people of all.